Australia is suffering from a six-year drought. Sixty percent of its wheat crop has been lost. The price of beer has gone up. Power plants have had to shut down because there hasn’t been enough water to cool them. In November of 2007, Kevin Rudd defeated John Howard for Prime Minister in significant part because Howard had refused to deal with the climate problem. Rudd promised he would, and, indeed, his first act in office was to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Reducing emissions will be a significant challenge for Australia. It is the largest user of coal per capita of any country in the world.
Drought drove this turnaround in Australian public opinion on climate change. Could it happen here?
The drought in the Southeastern U.S. was relieved a little bit by rain in the early winter months. Georgia, however, is negotiating with Tennessee about whether it can build a several hundred mile pipeline to move massive amounts of water from the Tennessee River to Atlanta. Tennessee has passed a law explicitly forbidding that transfer of water. If the drought takes hold again in the spring and summer as the forecasters are now predicting it will, we could see intense conflicts over where Atlanta is going to get water.
I want to make clear that you can’t attribute any specific drought to climate change. But, all climate models predict increased droughts in the Southeast and in many other parts of the world. The public won’t be troubled by scientific niceties if tanker trucks are pulling into downtown Atlanta full of water. It’s not inconceivable that the weather, be it drought, heat waves, or major storms, could play a role not only in Congress this summer, but in the fall elections.
If you consider the range of the presidential candidates, the Democratic nominees recognize climate change as a significant problem, and all have recommended mandatory federal action. But only Senator McCain among the Republicans—who has been a leader on climate—has a strong position. If the issue becomes politically more important in the fall, it is likely to benefit the Democratic candidate.